The ocean is seen in Penang, Malaysia, a nation that improved sanitation faster than most.
The ocean is seen in Penang, Malaysia, a nation that improved sanitation faster than most.

What can Malaysia teach Southeast Asia about water resources? A new study shows that Malaysia has been able to spread access to toilets and safe  sanitation to nearly 100% of the partial island nation. After some trial and error, its experience offers some lessons for others around the world, particularly at a time when places from California to South Africa are increasingly worried about how well they will be able to manage their water resources in the long run.

Water access improves

In recent decades Malaysia has increased citizens’ access to water thanks to a mix of top-down determination from the government, partial privatization, and clearly defined roles and rules for all stakeholders, author Dorai Narayana writes in a new book chapter. As a British colony until 1957, Malaysia used to see most urban inhabitants commonly use buckets or open defecation, which contributed to waterborne diseases. However after independence local authorities
started to pay more attention to sanitation, introducing septic tanks and piped water supplies.

National Government Leadership

Then the national government took over responsibilities in 1993. As the nation started to urbanize and develop quickly, it regulated the sector but allowed more private companies to deliver services, according to Narayana.

“Guidelines and standards were established, and a system to check and approve all new sewerage built by private developers was introduced,” he writes. “This resulted in a vast improvement in the quality of developer-built systems.”

A consultant in the sanitation and wastewater sector, Narayana analyzed Malaysia for the book Water Insecurity and Sanitation in Asia, published last month by the Asian Development Bank Institute and the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Investment in infrastructure

Malaysia has made a fast transition from a developing nation to an upper middle-income economy, using its new wealth to invest in infrastructure like sanitation.

Narayana writes that it was a “drastic move” and “largely a top-down approach” for the national government to take over from local governments, but it mostly worked. At the same time Malaysia has been ruled largely by the same party since independence, making it easier for the national government to concentrate and wield power.

Private Companies became involved

It has loosened some of that power to allow private companies into sanitation.

“With the federalization and privatization, the country saw spectacular improvements in sewerage management,” Narayana, who is based in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, writes. “Unprecedented amounts of funds were invested for the repair, refurbishment, and upgrading of the dilapidated sewage treatment plants.”

However the government makes sure to include strict regulations to go along with private investment. When it allowed Indah Water to sell services for instance, it required the company to empty septic tanks on a regular schedule and renovate all related infrastructure to the point of operating condition. Also when  ompanies build new real estate developments the law requires them to build internal sewerage infrastructure as well.

This matters to the government because it wants to promote sustainable use of resources, from water to energy to recycling, according to Malaysia’s deputy secretary general at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Hairil Yahri Yaacob. He argued that this issue has been overlooked amid the world’s focus on the economy, even though resource sustainability is also an economic issue.

“What we have to realize is that there is opportunity directly linked to sustainability,” said Yaacob in a statement.

As with the economy, sanitation is a day to day concern that affects everyone. It is not something people love to talk about but in this tropical nation, public and private sector work on sanitation has led to measurable improvements in the lives and well-being of most Malaysians.